Before Twin Peaks and The X-Files, Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner was the definitive cult sci-fi/suspense show, and while its influence may have diminished its impact to some, many of us still find it to be one of, if not the, most enthralling televisions shows in the history of the format. It certainly isn't a series for everyone, and it's been described as 'too weird' or 'impenetrable' before, but if you're willing to invest a little bit of your own interpretive skills and brain power into wrapping your head around the last two of the seventeen episodes that make up the series, you're sure to be justly rewarded.
The story, in a very brief nutshell, revolves around a man referred to only as Number Six, a former 'agent' who resigns only to wake up in a strange village somewhere on the coast where the inhabitants are referred to not by their names but by their numbers. Number Six refuses to conform and as such runs afoul of Number Two, the man in charge of the Village who wants to know why he resigned and wants to get the information out of his head. As such, Number Six wants nothing more than to escape so that he can go back to London, reclaim the identity that was taken from him, and live his life on his own terms but the Village has measures set in place to prevent that from happening and as the series unfolds it becomes obvious that there is a much larger conspiracy at work.
Full of pop art psychedelic imagery and fantastic compositions, The Prisoner was a show filled with completely surprising plot twists as one man fought against a system he couldn't see or understand to regain his identity. Number Six could trust no one while Number Two, played by a revolving door of actors and actresses, would stop at nothing to get the information out of his head. This made him a lone wolf of sorts and while there were a few other characters throughout the series who shared his ambitions and dreams of eventual escape, inevitably they never stuck around or they would end up being a wolf in sheep's clothing.
There were a few key factors that made the show as brilliant as it was. First and foremost was the writing. So far ahead of anything being shown on television at the time and remarkably complex even by today's standards, each script was packed with allegorical and symbolic ideas and dry, witty, and often chilling dialogue. The premises we see play out through the series are completely absurd at times, but the writers make it work and in the context of the show, even the strangest moments in the series seem to fit right in with the surrealist world that was created for the show. There are episodes here that are touching, while others are quite scary. The suspense is thick and completely intense at times and as the series progresses we get to learn enough about Number Six that we're soon right there with him, trying to second guess everyone else and figure out a way to escape.
Equally important to the show is the look that the producers managed to create for The Prisoner. Not only are the sets colorful and unusual, but the locations used have genuine class and character. The seaside town of Portmeirion, in Wales, served as the location for most of what would make up the Village, and this unusual town really brings a lot to the overall tone of the show. The color schemes used for the citizens who populate the are also add an almost comic book feel to the series at times, and the whole thing is very much a product of the sixties pop art that was so popular during the decade in which it was made. Likewise, odd little details like the presence of 'Rover' or the spy-cam statues might sound corny by today's standards but again, as with the more fantastic elements of the stories, these fit in nicely as odd as they may be.
The third key element to what makes The Prisoner so damn good is Patrick McGoohan himself. Not only did he play the lead but he also co-created the series, in addition to handling some of the directorial and scripting duties. This was his baby, and he made the most of it for as long as he could before the network cancelled the series and forced him to rush the ending into production. As Number Six he is fantastic. He's the perfect lead in that he comes across as smooth and intelligent as a good agent should, without being over the top in a James Bond sort of way. His is a complex character, and he handles the role very well portraying anger and frustration just as effectively as pathos and regret.
The series ran for seventeen episodes in total from October 1, 1967 though February 4, 1968 on Channel 13 in the United Kingdom. They are presented in this set across ten discs in the following order (which is the order in which they make the most sense, continuity wise, not the order in which they were first broadcast):
Arrival: In the episode that started it all, we see a man (Patrick McGoohan) resign from his job as a high level British spy. He heads back to his flat in London and packs his bags to take a vacation, but he's knocked out. When he regains a clear head, he finds himself not in his home but in a strange seaside village somewhere on the coast of England. He looks around for a phone but finds out that he cannot call outside the area. He tries to take a cab, but the golfcart-like taxies don't go outside the town borders. He soon realizes that all of the people around him don't have names, but numbers instead – he is Number Six. After a short while he is introduced to the man in charge, Number Two (George Baker). They talk and Six finds out that the reason he's in the village is that he knows too much. It seems someone wants to know why he left his job and is bound and determined to make sure that he doesn't spill the secret information he has tucked away in his head from his years of experience. Number Six wants to escape, but the surveillance cameras set up all over town make it tough, and then there's Rover, a giant weather balloon that smothers anyone who makes it past the borders of the Village.
Free For All:McGoohan wrote and directed this episode in which Number Six finds that he is being considered to replace the current Number Two. It's time for an election and so he takes up the challenge and runs against Number Two but his real motive is to find out what Number Two is up to and, more importantly, to find out who Number One is and why all of this is taking place at all. Number Six deliberately makes promises to the Village that he knows he won't be keeping just to get under Number Two's skin and it works. Number Two decides that Number Six needs to be tested and the results are nothing short of disturbing. It all leads up to a fantastic twist ending wherein a new Number Two is elected but not in the way that anyone expected.
Dance Of The Dead: While taking a leisurely stroll on the beach that surrounds the Village, Number Six comes across the corpse of a man who has been murdered and subsequently washed ashore. He examines the body and discovers a wallet and a radio and he hides the radio in a nearby cave along with the man's corpse. When he returns later, he tries the radio but to no avail so he straps a life jacket onto the dead man and tosses him back into the ocean with a note attached hoping that someone will find it and send help. What Number Six doesn't know is that a former friend named Dutton who is also in the Village has been watching him and is reporting back to Number Two (now a woman, Mary Morris). What Dutton doesn't realize is that he's not as valuable to Number Two as he'd like to believe.
Checkmate: Chess is a popular past time amongst the citizens who make up the population of the Village and when it comes time for the human chess game, Number Six is assigned the position of a queen's pawn. This turns out to be much more than a simple game, however, as when one of the rook's (Ronald Radd) makes an illegal move, he winds up being taken to the hospital. It seems that the organizers of the game don't like it when their chess pieces get out of line, but Number Six clued in to that shortly after his arrival, even if some of his fellow villagers did not. Number Two (now Peter Wyngarde), always up to something, has the queen (Rosalie Crutchley) brainwashed so that she falls for Number Six but it doesn't take Six long to find out that she's got a listening device hidden away in her necklace which lets Number Two hear every word they say to one another. What Number Two doesn't realize, however, is that Six has figured out a way to use the device to aid his latest escape plan which will require him to get the rook on his side.
The Chimes Of Big Ben: Number Six, not content to simply conform and spend the rest of his life in the Village as nothing more than a number, meets Nadia (Nedia Grey). She gives him a little more information about things than he had before and he learns that the Village lies somewhere on the coast of the Baltic Sea. Between the two of them they come up with a grand escape plan that they're sure will work, but they'll need a diversion. To keep the others distracted, Number Six enters an art competition and his entry, a wooden sailboat aptly titled 'Escape,' proves to be a fitting way to keep those who would stop them from leaving busy. Unfortunately, Number Two (now played by Leo McKern) sees all and Number Six soon learns that no one in the Village is to be completely trusted.
A, B, And C: The New Number Two (Colin Gorden) is tired of playing games with Number Six – he wants to know what's in his head and how to get it out and so he uses an experimental drug to tape into his mind. He figures that he'll find out why Number Six resigned in the first place but Number Six is on to things and is able to use his dreams to tell the story his way. From there, over three different nights, we learn how Number Six met A (Peter Bowles), B (Annette Carrell) and C at a party hosted by Madame Engadine (Katherine Kath). Needless to say, Number Two does not get the information that he was looking for, much to his disappointment, while Number Six remains determined to make his way out of the Village.
The General: A mysterious General has hired a brilliant professor to develop a speed learning process by which those in charge can educate the population of the Village quickly and as they see fit. Of course, Number Two (Colin Gorden again) easily figures out how he can use this to his advantage but the professor is not at all impressed by Number Two's plans and so he hopes to be able to destroy his own creation before things get out of hand. Number Six proves to be a handy ally for the professor and the two of them work together to stop Number Two but their plan fails and Number Six is brought in front of the General.
The Schizoid Man: When Number Six wakes up one morning he's surprised to find that while he's still in the Village, he's no longer in his apartment and there have been some rather drastic changes made while he lay resting not only to his surroundings but to his very body and habits! He finds that he is now left-handed and that he isn't Number Six anymore, but Number Twelve. Someone who very closely resembles his old self is the new Number Six, and Number Two (Anton Rodgers this time around) is bound and determined to finally break him and get inside his head. The only thing that the real Number Six has to work with is an unusual bruise on his fingernail. Has he finally snapped or is this all an elaborate scheme put into play by Number Two and his minions?
Many Happy Returns: When Number Six wakes up, he finds that the Village is completely empty, everyone has disappeared. Of course, he sees this as the only chance he'll probably ever get to make a break for it and so he puts together a makeshift raft and sets out across the ocean in hopes of finally regaining his freedom and his identity. Unfortunately for Number Six he runs afoul of some smugglers who swipe the few supplies he was able to bring with him and leave him to die out there in the sea. He blacks out and wakes up washed up on the shore, but he manages to pull himself together and make his way back to London. The first thing he does there is head straight to his old flat but someone else, a Mrs. Butterworth (Georgina Cookson), now lives there. She seems nice enough but Number Six's birthday is coming up soon and the surprise she has in store for him won't be to his liking at all.
It's Your Funeral: Number Two (Andre Van Gysegham) has carefully arranged a plot to assassinate a man that he no longer has any use for. Number Six finds out about the plot and he intends to expose it but Number Two manages to make him look untrustworthy after he comes to him with the details not realizing that he's behind it all. Soon, a new Number Two (Derren Nesbitt) arrives in the Village and Number Six figures out that he's been had. What Number Six doesn't realize is that the man he thought was going to be knocked off is not the intended target at all.
A Change of Mind: Once again, Number Six is set up when two local toughs start a fight with him and he's forced to defend himself against them. He's brought in front of a committee made up of a few different residents and they all agree that he is without a doubt 'unmutual.' They sentence him to undergo some social conditioning procedures but those in charge pull yet another trick on him by making him think that he's had the treatment when really he hasn't, as they want to make sure that the information in his head stays intact. When Number Six clues in to this, he tries to talk the Doctor (George Pravda) into helping him with his plan to get back at Number Two (this time played by John Sharp).
Hammer Into Anvil: Number Two (Patrick Cargill) drives a young woman to the point of suicide and Number Six swears that he will avenge her death. Number Two, however, tells Number Six that if he pushes too far that he will 'hammer' him if he has to. In order to mess with Number Two's head, Number Six comes up with a clever plan in which he tries to convince Number Two that he is in actuality Agent D6 and that he still reports to X04. Not sure what to think of this, Number Two once again tries to break Number Six to get the information he wants so badly.
Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling: In this particularly complex episode, a scientist named Professor Seltzman (Hugo Schuster) disappears. The people who run the Village want him back and so they transfer Number Six's brain into the body of another man and send him out to get him back. Number Six wakes up in London in his old flat and finds that no one he encounters will believe that he is who he is thanks to the fact that he looks different so he sets out to find Seltzman solo. He traces him to Austria and when he does, and he finds out why he left, he tries to convince him to help him get things back to normal.
Living In Harmony: In another exceptionally bizarre episode, Number Six winds up in an old western town where he finds his way into becoming the town sheriff where his first order of business is to help out a lady at a saloon named Cathy (Valerie French). He opts not to carry a pistol as most cowboys would, until some of the inhabitants start killing each other off and he's forced to pick up arms against them. A criminal named The Kid (Alexis Kanner) finally causes enough trouble that Number Six has to have a showdown with him, resulting in Number Six being hauled into court where the Judge (David Bauer) just might be the clue that ties things back to the Village.
The Girl Who Was Death: An army man named Colonel Hawke-Englishe is understood to have been killed by a scientist named Schnipps (Kenneth Griffith) who has, quite simply, lost his mind. Schnipps' daughter, Sonia (Justine Lord), believes herself to be the incarnation of death itself, will not let anyone get near her father and has rigged their hideout to ensure that anyone who gets in too close will be killed. Number Six is put back into his former position as an agent and has to track down Schnipps before he can launch a rocket into the middle of London which is capable of laying waste to the entire city.
Once Upon A Time: Number Two (Leo McKern this time around) has finally realized that he's not going to easily break Number Six and that if he really wants the information out of his head that badly that he's going to have to resort to more drastic measures. In essence, the kid gloves are off. He brings Number Six in for a round of Degree Absolute which is a contest designed to leave one winner and in which the loser forfeits his life. Number Six knows that if he beats Number Two at the contest, he'll finally learn who Number One is and hopefully be able to set things back to normal and get one with his life.
Fall Out (Minor Spoilers): The final episode of the series picks up directly where Once Upon A Time left off, and The Controller (Peter Swanwick) is bringing Number Six to meet Number One. He's given back his clothes that were taken from him when he was put in the Village, and he's brought to a huge room where he faces a committee of masked men and women held over by a man dressed as a judge. The judge tells Number Six and the committee that Number Six has passed the tests and is no longer a number but is instead 'sir' which is how he is to be addressed from here on out. Number Forty Eight is brought in front of the court and found guilty of starting a rebellion, and Number Two is later brought in and is resurrected only to be imprisoned with Number Forty Eight. Number Six is given his belongings back and invited to give a speech to the committee who only drown him out by chanting "I" at a deafening volume. He's let in to the basement and then up the stairs where Number One resides, and when Number Six takes off Number One's mask he is shocked by what he finds. Number Six chases Number One but he escapes, leaving him alone in the control room of a massive rocket which he fires up only to cause a panic in the committee chamber room. The rocket launches, Number Six frees Number Two and Number Forty Eight, but they're not going to make it out easily and there's a whole lot more to figure out before Number Six can set things right.
The show has endured as a favorite, years later, and debate still continues as to the merits and meaning of the completely surreal ending that McGoohan concocted for the show. McGoohan himself has spoken as to what he was going for with the series but everyone who sees the show seems to take something different away from it. That in itself is high praise indeed, that a show can continue to inspire so long after it has ceased production. The fandom that has grown up around the series continues to flourish, and the show not only inspired a song of the same name by Iron Maiden, but it also found it's way into an episode of The Simpsons entitled The Computer Wore Menace Shoes in which McGoohan jovially pokes fun at his most famous creation. A three issue comic book series was published by DC Comics (subtitled The Prisoner: Shattered Visage) in the late 80s by Dean Motter and Mark Askwith that continued the adventures of Number Six in a fairly faithful vein, and a few spin off novels were written in the sixties. There were even two Apple II video games made based on the series and even a GURPS world book (remember GURPS?) that would allow you to role play in the Village. Rumors persist as to a feature film version coming sooner or later, but so far nothing has come to light, though a new television series based on McGoohan's original is supposedly in development.
Each and every one of the full color episodes in this set is presented in its original fullframe aspect ratio, just as it should be. Color reproduction is pretty decent though there is some mild fading present in a couple of episodes. It isn't over powering or overly distracting, but it is there, as is some mild print damage from time to time and some mild to moderate grain. For a series that is now forty years old, some wear and tear is to be expected by when you take the age of the elements into account The Prisoner looks pretty decent on DVD. If you've only ever seen the show on TV or on the old A&E VHS releases, you'll likely be quite impressed with how good the show looks in comparison with this release. Compression artifacts and edge enhancement are never a problem and while some aliasing occurs from time to time, it's never overpowering or distracting.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack isn't perfect but aside from a few instances here and there were the sound effects are just a tad too loud, there aren't any notable problems with it. The dialogue is clean and clear and easy to follow and the score sounds really nice. Hiss and distortion are never a problem and things sound about as good as you could hope for on this release, you won't have any problems following the stories or hearing what's being said throughout and Ron Grainer's fantastic theme song sounds great over the opening credits.
A&E has done a fine job assembling quite a nice collection of interesting extra features for this set. If you have the previous boxed set or the single disc releases that were previously available, you'll have most of them but for those who weren't able to grab those releases at the time they came out, here's a look at what you can expect to find. First up is some rare original footage of the 1966 location shooting, Portmeirion, where we get a less polished look at the actual seaside town where the Village was created. It's interesting to see this and contrast it against how the Village looks in the series. There are some differences, as should be expected, but for the most part, it is what it is. Bernie Williams, the shows' production manager, provides commentary over top of this footage which adds some insights into the history of the show.
The best of the supplements on the set is the The Prisoner Video Companion which was originally created for the show's VHS release years back in 1990 but which fits in nicely here on this set regardless. This is essentially a forty-eight minute long documentary that, through clips and interviews with a multitude of the cast and crew involved in the series, examines how the show was created, McGoohan's involvement, and how the series was rushed to a close. During the documentary we not only learn the history of the series and some of the casting that went into it, but we're also treated to some interesting interpretations of some of the more unusual aspects of the series that have gone on to make it a cult favorite.
Also provided in the set is the alternate version of the The Chimes of Big Ben (taken from a 16mm print and shown here in noticeably rougher quality than the broadcast version). This will be of interest to fans not because the story is all that different but because of how it plays out. The fanatical will enjoy it, the casual maybe not so much but regardless, it's great to see it included in this set even if it is more of a curiosity item than anything else.
Continuing with the extras ported over from the single discs/previous boxed set is the Foreign File Cabinet clip, the textless intro and outro clips, and a few very cool galleries of original production stills and promotional materials, some The Prisoner trivia screens, and an interactive map of the Village. Each of the discs in the set also includes interactive menus, scene selection for each episode, and the original broadcast trailers for each episode.
Exclusive to this Fortieth Anniversary collection is a massive booklet of liner notes containing sixty fully illustrated pages which provide detailed synopsis' for each of the seventeen episodes. Additionally, the essays also provide anecdotes and trivia about each episode and they do a fine job of pointing out some of the interesting details that you might miss otherwise. A full color fold-out map of The Village is also included.
If you've already got the prior releases on DVD, you won't likely be rushing out to pick up this set, however, if you've never experienced The Prisoner or picked up the original releases, A&E's The Prisoner – Complete Series Mega Set (40th Anniversary Edition) comes highly recommended. It isn't cheap, but the episodes look and sound quite good, the extra features are interesting, and the series itself holds up better than pretty much anything that's come before or after.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.